Special Investigation: How the common agricultural policy promotes pollution

Almost a trillion Euros in taxpayers' money is handed to EU farmers as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. The money is supposed to leverage environmental practices. But an international team of investigative journalists, today publishing with THE ECOLOGIST, has found the cash actually feeds significant pollution

In Bretagne, we limit the number of animals – in theory,' he says. 'There are cheaters here, too.

Do Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies - which total nearly a trillion Euros every year - meet their declared goal of improving the environment - or do they instead subsidise egregious polluters in the livestock industry?

A team of journalists came together across eight countries this winter to answer this, what we thought should be an easy question.

Read Part II of the investigation here.

Inspired by an investigation conducted by the German investigative unit Correktiv in 2016, which matched recipients of CAP funds to polluters, we set out to replicate the findings in Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark, Austria (where the newsweekly Falter joined our team), Poland and the Netherlands (in parallel with De Groene Amsterdamer, which launched its own inquiry in communication with ours).

Highly polluting

Our focus was on pig and chicken farms, where factory-like farming of hundreds or thousands of animals in largely closed installations is a powerful trend. The investigation was funded by and coordinated with Greenpeace, and it was agreed by all that the charity would set no conditions on what we found, except that we must back our findings with irreproachable facts.

The urgency of our mission can hardly be disputed. One of many scholarly studies states the facts coldly: “Livestock production is among the most ecologically harmful of all anthropogenic activities.

"It has massive direct and indirect contributions to global warming besides causing widespread ecodegradation in other ways. But livestock production cannot be reduced because... the global demand for animal protein is far higher than the supply.”

In other words, putting meat on our plates is a known threat to our future, and the threat is growing in lockstep with the market for meat.   

Yet the subsidies paid by European taxpayers - in every country we examined - are indeed subsidising highly polluting installations where birds and animals are raised by the thousands - in the case of chickens, tens of thousands.

Environmentally friendly

We were told at the start that such a state of affairs is impossible, by honest officials and scholars who devote their lives to studying the CAP system. They pointed out that all CAP subsidies are conditioned on farmers working the land (or at least, keeping it ready for cultivation).

Therefore, an 'intensive' installation that occupies no land should receive no subsidies. But in every country we looked at, the intensive livestock farms - which generate the highest amounts of pollution according to the EU’s own measurements - figure among the recipients of CAP subsidies.   

In Bretagne, we limit the number of animals – in theory,' he says. 'There are cheaters here, too.

We discovered that the data used by the European Union to shape the CAP’s provisions, and in particular the data related to pollution, are so partial, dispersed, incomplete and obscure that it is inconceivable that a realistic policy to control agricultural pollution could reliably be based on it.

Likewise, in 2016 the European Court of Auditors noted that 7.5 million farms across the EU are subject to “cross-compliance rules”, which require respect for environmental regulations in exchange for CAP subsidies.

But the court said bluntly, that, on the basis of available information: “The [European] Commission currently cannot be sure whether the system is contributing to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.”

More manure

The Commission, in contrast, asserts that “ammonia emissions linked to agriculture in Europe are expected to decline by approximately 10 percent between 2008 and 2030.”  

Only one pollutant, ammonia, that is directly related to livestock farming is consistently reported at the national and European levels. That meant we had to focus on chicken and pig farms, and leave cows, which produce enormous quantities of methane, out of our inquiry for the most part. 

Ammonia from livestock excrement is a main reason that Europe’s rivers have become cemeteries for fish. It rarely kills people, but it can worsen their respiratory diseases. For livestock farmers and workers, it makes for hard conditions.

The Commission notes: “The release of ammonia in the atmosphere combines with other forms of air polluters, contributing to the formation of a particulate matter with strong negative impacts on human health.”

The quantities produced by livestock farming are so high that they are overwhelming the ability of farmers to manage them. In 2010, reported France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), 20 percent of the farmers in Bretagne, the centre of pork and chicken production, found themselves with more manure than they could legally dispose of by spreading it on their own lands.

Producing pigs

The institute noted that “these farmers must either treat the excess manure they produce or export it to be spread in neighbouring farms and/or areas, inducing fierce competition in the land market.” That may be one reason that small farms are disappearing, as we will see later.

Ammonia’s powerful odour also makes neighbours of chicken and pig farms frightened for the resale value of their homes. In Poland, our team of Patryk Szczepaniak and Julia Dauksza found that the value of residential properties next to intensive chicken farms dropped by half. 

But the thresholds for ammonia reporting from individual farms are so high that only a tiny share of farms, in both absolute and percentage terms, appear in the benchmark dataset (called the E-PRTR) of pollution sources compiled by the EU from national reports.

It is thus extremely difficult to see how many farms are polluting, and how much. To take only one national example, a massive 64 percent of all ammonia emissions in France are generated by livestock production, according to the CITEPA, an independent pollution monitoring association that shared an honorary Noble Peace Prize for its collaboration with governments and experts in 2007. 

Yet in France, the third-biggest pork producer and second-biggest chicken producer in the EU, less than 700 farms appear in the official lists of polluting sites, while some 31,000 farms are known to be producing pigs or chickens, geese and ducks. 

Intensive livestock

In Belgium, much data on polluters is effectively kept confidential by authorities and varies from one region to the next. In the Flemish part of the country, the addresses of polluting farms are reported, but not their names. In the French-speaking Walloon region, the cities where farms are located are reported, but not the street and number.

We nonetheless know that in Wallonia, nearly all ammonia pollution – a total of 19,000 tons in 2014 – comes from the agriculture sector.

We also know that big polluters in Belgium can get big subsidies. The Flemish company ARKOVA, which breeds pigs, accounts for 24 addresses in the Belgian company registry. Among them are five different farm addresses, which emitted nearly 81 tons of ammonia in 2015. ARKOVA and its corporate parent, the Danis group, took in 145,239.98 euros of CAP subsidies in 2016. 

Our colleagues at De Groene Amsterdamer found that since 2003 there has been an explosion of intensive livestock farms in the Netherlands, from 300 to over 800. In 2015 the Dutch government passed a law to reduce ammonia that forbade the construction of new 'megafarms'.

But it left a loophole: existing farms were still allowed to expand into intensive livestock installations. Thus 47 more intensive sites appeared in the countryside, often despite heartfelt citizen protests. Only 49 farms in the Netherlands out of the 34,000 that produce livestock are obliged to report their ammonia pollution to the EU.

Kilograms of ammonia

Emission figures for the other farms are only known by the authorities that grant the permits. But they keep the data confidential, citing privacy laws.  We can still state that at least twelve of the 49 biggest polluters received a substantial CAP subsidy in 2015. 

The most startling lack of transparency in this regard may be Austria, where Falter’s Benedikt Narodoslawsky discovered that “there is no data available about polluting farms in the E-PRTR database,” with the exception of a single poultry farm that appeared in 2001 and 2004. 

That is truly remarkable, because the national environmental agency, the Umweltbundesamt, declared that 94 percent of the country’s ammonia emissions – at 66,800 tons and rising in 2015 – came from agriculture. The agency also warned in a 2016 report: “These high emissions are basically a result of intensive farming.” 

Why don’t more Austrian farms report their emissions? This is where regulatory thresholds matter. Austrian farms tend to be small compared to elsewhere in Europe, and they fall under the standards set by the EU, which mandates reporting only for installations that produce more than 10,000 kilograms of ammonia per year – the amount that would be generated by 40,000 chickens, 2000 pigs or 750 piglet-bearing sows. 

There are nonetheless 152 such farms in Austrian, according the Austrian Statistics Agency – or perhaps only 53, according to the registers of the national environmental agency. (There is no law, European or otherwise, that requires all national agencies to agree about how their data is kept, and they often do not.)

Technical standard

It’s noteworthy that at this writing, the environmental agency does not count a henhouse for 40,000 birds that was built in the Styria region despite long and loud citizen protests. 

The people of Austria do not rely on official databases to tell them that intensive farming may not be in their interests. The Federal state of Tyrol has declared that factory farms “contradict good agricultural practice” and has banned them.

Last December, a project to build an intensive farm for poultry failed due to community protests. The mayor argued: “We don't want this intensive farming in Bad Zell.” This case precisely captures the difference between the reality of a polluting facility and European reporting thresholds: the proposed farm was intended to house 39,500 chickens, a few hundred less than the number that would have earned it a spot on the E-PRTR database.

Falter’s sources say that in Austria, “the chamber of agriculture - the influential lobbying organisation for farmers - is advising their members to avoid becoming an IPPC/IED farm [the European acronym for threshold reporting requirements], because it's making life much more complicated for farmers.

"In particular, the rule that you always have to have the best technical standard, and therefore you are forced to modernise your stables continually, sounds challenging for them.” 

Respiratory systems

Incomplete as they are, across Europe the data tell a story when they are coupled to other sources of information. We know that the linkage of CAP policies to environmental goals, after real success in reducing pollution in the first decade of this century in places like France’s Bretagne region, has hit a wall.

Overall levels of ammonia emissions from agriculture there have remained stable in recent years - though the levels in drinking water are still three times higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for human consumption).

One reason is that current technologies and methods for controlling emissions from animal excrement have reached the limits set by regulators.

“There was a great effort to meet standards in stockage and spreading [of manure]", notes Paul Ponchart, a project manager at the ITAVI, an association of agricultural experts.  “Most farms did this work, so the reductions stopped.” 

A French chicken farmer who appears on both the E-PRTR database and the list of CAP recipients told us: “Ammonia emissions are facts that we take very seriously. You can’t say we’re happy about it. On the contrary, the first victims of ammonia are the animals, because it’s harmful to their respiratory systems. So we try to reduce the emissions every year, but it’s not easy.”

Mature cows

A second reason that reductions slowed down is that some farmers had a choice between upgrading their technology or going out of business.

“Since 1994, French farmers have received subsidies for investing in a [excrement] treatment plant, a policy that favours treatment over other manure elimination options,” noted the INRA. “However, this technology is not profitable for all farmers in the long run.”

A third reason is that some farmers across Europe game the system. In the Netherlands it was revealed last February that up to 2100 cattle farms had lied about the number of mature cows, and hence the levels of pollution, on their land.

The scheme involved reporting milk cows, which count for one unit in environmental calculations, as immature heifers, which count as half a unit, because they produce less excrement per head.

The trick required farmers to report that mature cows were giving birth to multiple calves, and it was uncovered only when food safety authorities noticed a massive increase in “twin” births.

Big polluters

The Dutch government had already won an exemption from EU environmental regulations concerning the amount of manure that can be recycled on farms.

To win the exemption, the Dutch had promised to reduce the number of cattle in the country by over eight percent. Apparently, Dutch farmers were not happy to reduce the size of their herds, which impacts their incomes. 

Are the Dutch alone? A French farm union official doubts it. “In Bretagne, we limit the number of animals – in theory,” he says. “There are cheaters here, too.”

The CAP cannot be blamed for the fact that, thanks to lax enforcement and toothless sanctions – in most cases, a temporary reduction in the amount of CAP subsidies – some farm operators cheat on their environmental obligations.

Just as certainly, the EU cannot be faulted for the fact that big polluters receive other subsidies for their operations at the national, regional or local levels.

Individual farms

For example, despite the ending of European subsidies for agricultural exports, notably pork or chicken meat, in 2017 the French company Doux S.A. received 72,034 euros from the Regional Council of Bretagne for a program to improve the “nutritional quality of chicken... for the export market.”

Doux had previously received millions of euros in export subsidies from the EU and France, which did not prevent the firm from going bankrupt. It was bought by the agro-business group Terrana in 2016, and has since been resold.

It remains that Europe’s farm policy leaves citizens almost clueless about how individual farms contribute to a massive pollution problem. Behind that screen, European taxpayers are effectively paying farmers to make the problem worse. 

In the next part of this series - published tomorrow - we look at how CAP subsidies encourage farmers to undertake the intensive livestock operations that contribute most to pollution. 

These Authors

This investigation was conducted by the following authors: Mark Lee Hunter (France), Stefan Wehrmeyer (Germany), Nils Mulvad (Denmark), Delphine Reuter (Belgium), Matteo Civillini (Italy), Benedikt Narodoslawsky (Austria) and Patryk Szczepaniak and Julia Dauksza (Poland). They also thank colleagues Luuk Sengers and De Groene Amsterdamer for sharing information from their parallel investigation in the Netherlands. Read Part II of the investigation here.

More from this author